Victorian Opera: Seven Deadly Sins

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Published: 9th November, 2015

Victorian Opera has chalked up another triumph with its spotlight on mankind’s failings. Our seven deadly sins were presented in two manifestations: the famous gritty Berliner Kabarett version by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, alongside Seven Deadly Sins by four emerging Australian composers. This sole performance of the new work was the product of extensive workshops in collaboration with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s Composer Development Program and Victorian Opera.

Undoubtedly, the main attraction for the capacity audience was Meow Meow, an artist whose rare gifts defy adequate description. The impact of her performance derives from her highly charged personal charisma and her ability to use her body and voice to present a finely honed characterisation. In the dual personalities of singer/dancer Anna 1 and Anna 2 of Die Sieben Todsünden, she could be heard before she could be seen as labored breathing heralded her torturous climb onto the stage from the front of the stalls. A picture of exhausted fragile beauty she nevertheless lugged suitcases up onto the platforms set on either side of the stage and gave a spectacular display of athletic dancing during a couple of the orchestral passages. Sometimes weak and breathy, at other times strong and earthy, Meow Meow’s vocal nuance was as subtle as her body language when even the direction of a gaze spoke volumes. This was such a mesmerising display of inspired theatricality that it was well nigh impossible to focus on much else.

That said, for those whose German was not quite up to scratch a glance at the surtitles was a useful way of following the details of Anna’s predicament as she travelled from Memphis (Pride) to Los Angeles (Anger), Philadelphia (Gluttony), Boston (Lust), Baltimore (Greed), San Francisco (Envy) and finally home to her slothful family in Louisiana. In a frame at the back of the stage, tenors Michael Petruccelli and Carlos E Bárcenas, baritone Nathan Lay and bass baritone Jeremy Kleeman were the family quartet warning Anna against her propensity for the assorted vices that might prevent her from earning enough money to pay for their Louisiana mansion. A bearded Kleeman in a dress was certainly eye-catching, but it was the tight, mellifluous sound of this barbershop quartet that made the most striking impression.

Under the baton of Tahu Matheson, Orchestra Victoria also impressed with a stylish reading of Weill’s deceptively simple score. As part of a seamless whole, the orchestral playing also provided some outstanding moments from individual members, most notably the horn.

A fundamental element of the brief given to the four emerging composers for the first part of the program was to write for the same orchestral forces used by Weill. Two cities and their cardinal sins were allocated to each composer: Mark Viggiani (Hobart/Envy and Perth/Anger), Jessica Wells (Melbourne/Greed and Canberra/Pride) and Ian Whitney (Brisbane/Sloth and Sydney/Lust). Julian Langdon was assigned Adelaide/Gluttony as well as the tasks of the Prologue and Epilogue, where a musical and verbal summary of all composers was required. The prologue was announced with a bang followed by music suggesting that the mysterious underbelly of these cities was about to be revealed. This melodramatic beginning with a pastiche of what was to follow set the tone for what was essentially an entertaining series of satires on significant features of the seven sinful cities. There were aspects of Weill’s cabaret style with dance rhythms, marches and tuneful, sometimes soulful songs but there was a remarkable degree of variation within this.

Unlike Weill, these four composers were asked to write their own libretti and they came up with some extremely entertaining and pertinent insights. Although the composers worked with the singers to determine the best artistic outcome in terms of accommodating the strengths and characteristics of each voice, they asked a great deal of them with regard to musicality and memory.

Cameron Menzies also put these young singers through their paces with challenging direction that obliged them to commit themselves to the action whole-heartedly. Some of Menzies’ choices may given certain boundaries a hearty push, especially in Viggiani’s Perth section where the magnate’s youthful energies were revived by one of the warring women in his life; however, sin is hardly associated with good taste. In Ian Whitney’s lascivious Sydney, lust and duplicity also required the singers to put any inhibitions to one side, which they managed to do surprisingly effectively.

How Michael Petruccelli and Nathan Lay found the energy to sing so well in the second half of the program would assure any potential employer that these two singers have well-developed reserves of vocal stamina, apart from their considerable acting ability. Petruccelli was powerful as the physically contorted figure of the ambiguous John Wren in Jessica Wells’ depiction of Melbourne Greed. He and Lay were the only singers for Gluttony, as health concerns gave way to the food critic’s appetite. As one of the trio for Whitney’s Sloth, which followed, at least Lay was able to take a seat as he complained about the Brisbane heat and called for a beer.

Kate Amos, Elizabeth Lewis, Emma Muir-Smith, Cristina Russo and Matthew Tng were also terrific in their many ensembles and solos. Whether as the energetic Team Australia cheer squad for a succession of politicians, or as the pollies themselves, the singers generated a level excitement for Jessica Wells’ witty Canberra/Pride segment that was much appreciated by the audience. Of course, Tony Abbott’s red budgie smugglers and his repetitious slogans and mangling of the English language were inevitable inclusions, but political bias was averted as Julia and Kevin were also unthroned.

Although some of the men were obliged to make a lightning change of costume (at one point Nathan Lay sprinted across the stage to make one of his changes) the red, white and blue dresses designed by Linda Britten for the ladies projected a colourful emblem of Australian – dare we say it? – Pride.

This final production of Victorian Opera’s 10th season was also the grand finale for the seven singers portraying the sins. It was not only the graduating performance of the Master of Music (Opera Performance) students in a unique collaboration between Victorian Opera and the University of Melbourne, but it was also the end of the program itself after two intakes over four years. While the funding may have run out for this specific program, these young singers showed that it has been money wisely spent. Judging from the quality of this performance, it is patently obvious that every effort should be made to provide these opportunities to gifted young singers and composers such as these.

Victorian Opera and its supporters are to be congratulated on their significant commitment to the nurturing of local talent in a way that will ensure the health of Melbourne’s cultural life as well as its reputation. Its value should never be under-estimated.

Heather Leviston reviewed Victorian Opera’s performance at the Arts Centre Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, on November 6. 

The image of Miaow Miaow in this production is by Charlie Kinross.